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Jack London's Influences
INFLUENCES OF JACK LONDON
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900) was a German philosopher who espoused ideas that has profound influence on Jack London. A book by Nietzsche called Thus Spoke Zarathusa was one of London’s favorites. In this book, Nietzsche gave his theory of the "Uber-Mensch" or "Superman." The "Superman" is perfect in both mind and body, and is unmatched in strength and intelligence. Most important, he is also unencumbered by religious or social laws. In a world of slaves, the “Uber-Mensch” is a master. He is, thus, a law unto himself. In Nietzsche’s view, the “Superman” is neither a positive (good) force nor a negative (evil) force in any conventional sense. In fact, Nietzsche argues that good and evil are mere extensions of “slave” mentality, which the “Superman” is free to ignore. Nietzsche was also interested in the idea of what he called “Will to Power”, which is the source of the “Superman’s” transcendence. It was the ideas of the "Superman" and “Will to Power” that Jack London would incorporate into many of his novels and short stories. However, London, in contrast to Nietzsche, believed that the “Superman” would be a positive force, and that it represented a sort of evolutionary state of man.
Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) published The Origin of Species in 1859, and creates a worldwide stir, which exists to this day. Darwin’s essential series suggested that life developed gradually from common ancestry and that life favored those who best compete. The implications of Darwin's Theories were threefold:
· People were controlled by heredity and environment
· Behaviors were beyond our control
· Humanity is a natural object, rather than being above all else
Jack London read Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species during his stay in the Klondike in 1897 and 1898; however, it is other peoples’ interpretations and writings about Darwin that had the greatest influence on London, especially the writings of Herbert Spencer.
Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903) was an English Philosopher who helped create a theory that uses the idea of “survival of the fittest” to explain how societies reflect natural selection in nature. Contrary to popular belief, it was Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin, who first coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." He first used the phrase in the Principles of Biology (1864 - 1867), when he wrote, "The survival of the fittest which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called "natural selection, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life." Spencer adapted the theory of evolution into a social system in which those individuals, species, or races with the best acquired characteristics would survive. This theory was later called “Social Darwinism.”
Social Darwinism is term that is used to describe the belief that human societies operate according to the principles of natural selection developed by Charles Darwin (Charles Darwin himself was not a Social Darwinist, but many believed that his ideas could explain the way societies worked). In applying the theory of natural selection to competition between social classes and races, they argued that human progress resulted from the triumph of evolutionarily advanced individuals - who were fit to survive - over the inferior. Wealth and power were seen as signs of inherent “fitness,” while poverty was taken as evidence of natural inferiority. The Social Darwinists argued that through competition, social evolution would automatically produce prosperity and personal liberty unparalleled in human history because inevitably the unfit would be culled, and only the fit would remain.
Critics of Social Darwinism note that the idea that some people are unsuccessful because they are “biologically unfit” has been used to excuse racism as well as social and economic oppression of the poor. Also, it has been argued that Social Darwinism creates a false analogy between nature and society. In nature, for example, the species that survive are the ones that are best adapted to their environments, or can develop natural or biological adaptations to help them compete. These adaptations happen over the course of hundreds, even thousands of years. In societies, however, people do not succeed because they develop natural adaptations; they succeed because the society intervenes on their behalf, through societal constructs. This intervention may occur because of their race or their wealth. To judge the success of a species based on “unnatural” criteria, such as wealth, is a misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It is incorrect to treat wealth as if it were a biological trait. Thus, Social Darwinism is a false analogy.
Naturalism describes a literary movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As is true of most movements in art, it was in response to prior literary movements, in this case, to romanticism and realism. Naturalism actually came out of realism, but with a different emphasis of study. Where realism tried to describe subjects as they really were, using detailed description and playing with narrative perspective, naturalism also tried to determine “scientifically” the underlying forces that informed the subjects’ actions. Thus, while realism is mainly a literary technique, naturalism implies a philosophy.
Naturalists believed that heredity and surroundings determined one’s character. To a naturalist writer, human beings were -as the famous naturalist writer Emile Zola wrote - “human beasts”, and could be studied through their relationships to their surroundings. Further, naturalists rejected many of the conventional subjects of realist literature, which tended to be wealthy, urban, upper middle class people. Naturalists tended to write about the downtrodden and lower classes, perhaps because these subjects seemed to the naturalists to be more close to the natural state of mankind, unprotected by wealth and society.
Many naturalist writers were especially attracted to the theories of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. The naturalists explored these theories in their writing as if their writings were scientific studies of humanity, but in reality they were notably unscientific in their approaches, as they weren’t testing the theories so much as validating them. In fact, many naturalists subscribed to theories that were pseudoscientific offshoots of Darwin, such as Social Darwinism.
Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) in the late 1840’s espoused a political / social / economic philosophy that argued against capitalism and private property in favor of a system that would provide more equal distribution of wealth, as well as state control of means of production. Marx, and his collaborator Friedrich Engels, pushed for the overthrow of the capitalist system by the workers of the world. This philosophy (Marxism) later became known as “socialism” and even later as “communism.” London's time spent in poverty, and in the canneries and jute mills, his knowledge of child labor, and the horrendous working conditions in most factories, made Marx's theories a viable alternative. London's concern for the working Man, lead him to advocate socialism.